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Sir Charles William Lindsay

After graduating from Perkins with piano tuner credentials in 1877, Charles William Lindsay went on to build one of the most successful piano companies in Canada.

Charles Lindsay with his uniformed driver, George S. Harvey. Both men are wearing long coats and hats, Lindsay in a bowler hat. Lindsay has his hand on Harvey's elbow, in a sighted guide position. There is an old-style car behind them.

Tracey is a Teacher of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing; American Sign Language is her second language. Tracey taught Deaf and Deafblind students at the BC School for the Deaf (formerly Jericho Hill School for the Deaf), was a member of the ASL Curriculum writing team in 1998 (under the surname Costen) and presented a TEDx Talk entitled “ADHD: Approach With Science.” Tracey is the granddaughter of Alfred Lindsay Costen, who was the grand-nephew and namesake of brothers-in-law Dr. Alfred McDiarmid and Sir Charles William Lindsay. Mary Ann (McDiarmid) Costen and her children were financially supported by the two gentlemen when she was widowed in 1900. 


From tuning book to empire

Charles William Lindsay (April 6, 1856 – November 7, 1939) was born in Montreal, Quebec. His parents were William Lindsay (of London, England) and Frances Mary Howard Lindsay (of Montreal). Census records of 1871 show Mr. William Lindsay was of Scottish descent and his occupation was official assignee for insolvency cases. Mrs. Frances Mary Howard Lindsay was of Irish descent. In the photo above, Charles Lindsay is arriving at the “Christ Church” cathedral in Montreal with his chauffeur of 25 years, George S. Harvey on April 17, 1938. (Photo was taken by Conrad Poirier and is from BANQ .)

Lindsay graduated from Montreal High School and was attending university in Boston when, at the age of 19, he was blinded. Undaunted, Lindsay continued on his path of higher education and attended Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind (1875 – 1877) where he learned the skilled trade of piano tuning. Lindsay returned to Montreal in 1877 and began his own business, tuning pianos in people’s homes. Initially, Lindsay worked out of a confectioner’s shop; in his third year of business he opened his own office, began selling refurbished pianos, and hired staff. The Winnipeg Free Press reported that Lindsay hired and personally bonded immigrant piano tuners who were blind. At that time, the Immigration Act did not allow people who were blind (among others) to move to Canada. Any person who was blind and entering Canada would have to be bonded for three years by an employer to ensure the individual could financially support themselves. 

In the decades following his humble beginnings, Lindsay amassed a great fortune (equivalent to $250 million today) with his own company, CW Lindsay Limited Co. Indeed, Lindsay had many business accomplishments. He was the first and exclusive dealer of Steinway and Heintzman pianos in Quebec, which meant he could sell them for a much better price than any of his competitors. In 1889 his business was listed as a company in Chaput Freres “The Commercial Agency” (p. 89) and Lindsay gradually expanded to multiple store locations in two provinces. The company was incorporated in 1902 and celebrated its Golden Jubilee in 1927. Listed on the stock exchange in 1928, it was reputed as being the largest retail piano house in Canada and one of the largest in the British Empire. In addition to his two locations in Montreal, there were eight others in: Ottawa, Hull, Belleville, Kingston, Brockville, Cornwall, Trois Rivières and Quebec. Of the two stores in Montreal, both on St. Catherine Street, one was entirely staffed by French employees (Montreal Gazette, 1927, p. 11). 

Marriage and family

Not much is known about Lindsay’s personal life. He married Aurillia Olivia Lombard Stoneham in Portland, Maine on October 4, 1882. Aurillia was born in the United States and moved to Montreal with her parents when she was a child. A partner in Lindsay’s firm, she had her own business before the couple were married. She was a member of the Morning Ladies Musical, was an avid concert goer, sat on various boards, and spent time working with students who were blind. The Lindsays did not have children of their own, but were loving and supportive to their many nieces and nephews and the children who attended Mackay Institute, a school initially built for children who are deaf which also served children who are blind. 

Charles and Aurillia owned a home at ‘Number 56 The Boulevard’ in Westmount, Montreal. The home was named “Kallorama” which is perhaps associated with the Greek word ‘kalorama’ meaning ‘beautiful view.’ Aurillia died at their home in 1915, as did Charles in 1939. The home was then purchased and converted into “The Priory School” which has been operating for over 70 years.

Respectful and progressive

Charles William Lindsay is remembered as a stoic, intelligent, generous and wise man. He worked to unite others regardless of nationality, religion, language, sex, or disability. Lindsay’s views were progressive for his time, as evidenced by naming his wife as one-third partner in CW Lindsay Ltd. Co. Lindsay hired a chauffeur who was French and staffed an entire store with employees who were French to serve French customers. Lindsay published advertisements in both English and French newspapers. This was all being done at a time when there was great division between English and French communities in Quebec and Canada. 

In 1908, Lindsay was a co-founder and first President of the Montreal Association for the Blind. By 1915, Lindsay provided space in his newly constructed Lindsay Building, gratis, for a lending library and meeting room for members of the blind community. Fiscally responsible, Lindsay did not believe a separate school for children who were blind was actually warranted. He maintained that the English speaking children of the province who were blind could continue to be educated at Mackay, a school he continued to personally provide support to.

Philanthropy

Lindsay devoted significant time to philanthropic works for which, in 1935, he was made a Knight of the British Empire. Lindsay is credited for his support and financial backing of the universal standardisation of braille. The ‘war of the dots’ had been ongoing for years. Braille is French in origin and was used at Perkins in Boston and at the Nazareth Institute (a school for French children who are blind) in Montreal. Lindsay supported efforts for the universal standardisation of braille by providing funding to defray costs for two delegates to attend meetings on standardisation in London, England. The delegates were Captain AE Baker, who was the co-founder of the CNIB in 1918, and SC Swift who was the Secretary-General and Librarian for the Canadian Free Library for the Blind, which later became part of Canadian National Institute of the Blind (CNIB). 

Lindsay helped negotiate a branch of the CNIB in Quebec, was a member of the CNIB council, and later was an honourary President. In addition to sitting on various boards related to advocacy for people who are blind in Canada, Lindsay was well connected with foundations and associations supporting people who are blind in the United States. He was a generous donor and supporter for the journal Outlook for the Blind. In 1919, Lindsay hosted a dinner reception for the American Association of Workers for the Blind (AAWB) at their fifteenth biennial convention in Toronto, Canada. In 1921, Lindsay was among those elected to the first board of the American Foundation of the Blind (AFB). The AFB needed funds to support its work, including the cost of postage. Being a businessman, Lindsay offered a promise of $1,000.00 if nine other people would promise to pay the same. Donations were made, including a $7,000 anonymous donation, and Lindsay promptly paid his subscription. 

Legacy: Gifts and endowments 

Charles William Lindsay cared for his loyal staff. In 1929, the year of the stock market crash, he distributed $100,000 to staff as a bonus and $100,000 was again distributed upon Sir Lindsay’s death in 1939 (LeBel, 2013). He willed his 1937 Buick to his chauffeur, $3,000 to the widow of one of his employees, $2,000 to his housekeeper and $1,000 to the woman who had provided end of life care for his mother. In 1939, Lindsay’s personal fortune was estimated at 7 million dollars, four million of which he gave to charity. Incredibly, Sir Lindsay’s Will was printed in newspapers, listing the many benefactors of his kindness (LeBel, 2013).

 A tribute to Sir Lindsay was printed on the front page of Le Devoir (1939):  L’actualité Feu Sir Charles Lindsay. It is signed off simply as “Louis D.” A rough English translation of this Letter of Dedication makes clear the high regard staff had for Sir Lindsay:

“When Sir Charles was master of an assured fortune, contrary to what others would do, he slowed down his commercial activities to extend and intensify his philanthropic activities, which he had made his avocation.” (Louis D)

Eight institutions in Montreal each received $300,000, five of them being hospitals. Funds were also endowed to numerous hospitals and health care facilities. A number of educational institutions received financial gifts including the Mackay Institute, Nazareth Institute, Bishop’s University, McGill University, University Settlement, the School for Crippled Children, and the Perkins Institute for the Blind. The Osler Library at McGill University received $37,000. Funds were distributed to multiple agencies including the Boy Scouts’ Association, the YMCA and YWCA and the Red Feather Endowment, which is now known as the United Way. The American Foundation for the Blind received $5,000.

From its start in 1918, the CNIB was important to Sir Lindsay. Correspondence from SC Swift to Lindsay in December 1918 emphasises this connection: “I want to tell you how much we all appreciate your support of both kinds, that is, your endorsation of our plan for union, and your financial aid (Canadian National Library p. 80). Upon Sir Lindsay’s death, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind was one of the institutions he bequeathed $300,000 to. 

Perkins pride

Through his lifetime, Lindsay remained a staunch supporter of Perkins. To commemorate the centennial of Perkins, Lindsay coordinated, with fellow graduates of Perkins, the purchase and installation of a Skinner Organ in Dwight Hall (link opens to information on the organ). On November 9, 1932, the first of two days of celebrations were held in Dwight Hall for the centenary events. Lindsay was in attendance, along with 1000 people, 500 of them graduates of Perkins. This same Skinner Organ remains in Dwight Hall today and the inscription reads: “Presented by former students at the centennial exercises – 1932.” The cost of the organ was around $17,500 – equivalent to roughly $400,000 today, with Sir Charles William Lindsay paying for half of it. 

The Skinner Organ Company was located in Boston and was the foremost name in organ building at that time. Their organs are located in many prestigious locations, including the Cathedral of Saint John of the Divine in New York City. Skinner organs produced between 1927 and 1933 were considered the company’s best work. The Skinner Organ in Dwight Hall is a large, four-manual instrument; with nearly 3000 pipes it was considered a significant upgrade to the 1865 Hook and Hammer organ it had replaced. 

Treats, gifts, and ice cream

Lindsay was a member of the corporation of Perkins and was steadfastly interested in the welfare of the school, so he frequently corresponded with the director. Lindsay was noted for providing treats and gifts to staff and students: on one occasion he provided ice-cream dessert and another time a gift of anagrams made with braille for each of the cottages. Described as a ‘constant benefactor’ Lindsay once sent $50.00 to help where needed for a summer institute in piano-forte tuning. The men who attended the training would not have been able to, were it not for his thoughtful donation which covered their travel expenses. 

Tributes

Perkins was equally proud of their former student.  As shared in The Lantern, 1935: 

“Sir Charles W. Lindsay! The appearance of that name on the King’s New Year’s List of honors brought a thrill to every Perkinsite. Few men are more deserving of this distinction than our devoted alumnus and no school could be more proud of its share of the reflected glory than Perkins. The outstanding business success of Sir Charles and the far reaching influence of his philanthropies are too well known to need recital here. We want, however, to proclaim our pride in this distinction so worthily bestowed and to speak for all in extending congratulations and good wishes to our new knight.”

A full page obituary for Sir Charles Lindsay was published in The Lantern in 1939. Sir Lindsay was laid to rest with his wife, Aurillia Stoneham Lindsay, in the Mount Royal Cemetery in Montreal, Quebec Canada. On her headstone he had dedicated the following: “God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love.” Upon Sir Lindsay’s death almost 25 years later, a state funeral was held. The inscription on his headstone simply reads: “There shall be no night there.” 

Works cited

Additional resources

Suggested citation

Sweetapple, Tracey Leigh. “Sir Charles William Lindsay.” Perkins Archives Blog, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown MA. January 10, 2024.

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